The New York Times recently announced that A.G. Sulzberger, the 37-year-old son of its current publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., will become the paper’s new publisher on January 1, 2018.
What no one mentioned is that Sulzberger’s journalism is appreciated by a surprising figure: Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker, who used an article co-written by Sulzberger to bolster the resolve of wavering GOP lawmakers in the midst of Walker’s ferocious attack on public sector unions in 2011.
Walker became a hero of conservatives nationwide when he successfully pushed Act 10 through the Wisconsin legislature in the face of enormous, weeks-long protests of up to 100,000 people in Madison, the state capital. The bill imposed severe restrictions on the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions which generally support Democratic politicians. (It exempted police and firefighter unions, which generally lean right, from the changes.) Walker then won a recall election in 2012 and was reelected in 2014.
At the height of the 2011 turmoil, Walker eagerly took a phone call from a man who he believed was ultra-conservative billionaire David Koch. In reality it was Ian Murphy, a reporter for an alternative Buffalo newspaper, pretending to be Koch. Murphy taped the call and then put it online.
During the conversation, “Koch” told Walker that it was “beautiful” to see his plans to “crush that union,” and urged Walker to “bring a baseball bat” to any discussions with Democrats.
Walker then explained how gratifying and useful he’d found a recent Times article:
WALKER: I tell the speaker, the senate majority leader every night, give me a list of the people I need to call at home, to shore ’em up. The New York Times, of all things, I don’t normally tell people to read the New York Times, but the front page of the New York Times has got a great story, one of these unbelievable moments of true journalism, what is supposed to be objective journalism. They got out of the capital and went down one county south of the capital to Janesville, to Rock County, that’s where the General Motors plant once was…
They moved out two years ago. The lead on this story is about a guy who was laid off two years ago, uh, he’s been laid off twice by GM, who points out that, uh, everybody else in his town has had to sacrifice except for all these public employees and it’s about damn time they do, and he supports me. Um, and they had a bartender, they had, I mean, every stereotypical blue-collar worker type they interviewed, and the only ones that weren’t with us were people who were either a public employee or married to a public employee. It’s an unbelievable story. So I went through and called all these uh, a handful, a dozen or so lawmakers I worry about each day and said, “Everyone, we should get that story printed out and send it to anyone giving you grief.”
This piece, headlined “Union Bonds in Wisconsin Begin to Fray,” was written by Sulzberger and his fellow Times reporter Monica Davey.
Walker’s description was generally accurate. The Times article portrays a conflict between the intellectual elites in Madison who “predictably oppose” Walker’s plans and the real Wisconsinites “away from Madison” who believe that “public workers needed to share in the sacrifice that their own families have been forced to make.” It quotes six people who work in the private sector who support Walker’s crackdown on public sector unions, and only two who don’t like it.
However, this three-to-one ratio in support of Walker seems slightly peculiar, given the voting patterns in the area. The eight Wisconsinites lived in towns across Rock, Walworth and Jefferson Counties. Walker won 55 percent of the vote in the three counties in 2010, and 54 percent in the 2012 recall election. Both times Walker actually lost Rock County, where Janesville is located, making up for it in the other two, redder counties.
Moreover, a poll at the time found that 57 percent of Wisconsinites overall supported the right of public unions to collectively bargain, while just 37 percent opposed it.
Also notable is Walker’s excitement that the lede on the story is about a man named Rich Hahn, who’d been laid off twice by GM. The reason for Walker’s joy is obvious: The piece originally described Hahn as “a union man from a union town” who nevertheless believed “something needs to be done … and quickly” about greedy public unions. However, after the United Auto Workers found no record of Hahn as a member, the Times ran a correction reading that while Hahn “described himself to a reporter as a ‘union guy,’ he now says that he has worked at unionized factories, but was not himself a union member.”
After the release of the prank call to Walker, Sulzberger immediately wrote an article about it, but modestly made no mention of Walker’s praise for his work.
There’s little else in the public record about Sulzberger’s attitude toward unions generally or unions representing New York Times workers in particular. However, Sulzberger’s father has sporadically had tense relations with the paper’s unions.
In any case, nervous Republican lawmakers held tight, and passed Act 10. A 2016 analysis of the effect of the bill found that unions in Wisconsin had been significantly weakened. Membership, dues, and lobbying were all sharply lower than before Walker’s triumph.
This almost certainly made the difference in Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin, which he won by only 22,000 votes in a state with 117,000 fewer union members. Soon after Trump moved into the White House, Walker met there with Vice President Mike Pence to discuss taking Act 10 national.